When I was a young civil rights lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in Mississippi, I was called in 1967 to testify before Congress about the embattled Head Start program in Mississippi that was serving thousands of children after the state turned its federal funding down and community groups exercised their option to apply. But after defending the Child Development Group of Mississippi overseeing Head Start, for which I served as counsel, I added my urgent concern about the deep poverty and high levels of hunger in Mississippi. I asked the Senators to come see the hungry children and families with no income. A delegation of U.S. Senators, including Robert F. Kennedy, came to Jackson, Mississippi to hold hearings about the Head Start and War on Poverty programs and I testified again and asked them again to visit children and families in the Mississippi Delta so they could see for themselves the very hungry poor including children in our very rich nation. Senators Kennedy and Joseph Clark agreed to do so and we visited homes – many of them shacks with dirt floors and empty cupboards – and saw a level of hunger many people did not believe could exist in America. We saw listless young children with bloated bellies and families with no income who could not afford even the $2 cost to buy food stamps which had replaced free food commodities.
What Senator Kennedy experienced there profoundly moved him and he returned to Washington and went the very next day to see U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman to urge immediate relief for desperately poor and hungry children and families. Senator Kennedy’s passionate leadership and commitment echoed my frustration at the foot dragging of the federal government in getting food to hungry Mississippi children and helped spark the Poor People’s Campaign launched by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that began 50 years ago this month. Robert Kennedy told me to tell Dr. King to bring the poor to Washington. Although the assassinations of Dr. King and Robert Kennedy dampened the campaign, it set in motion a series of expansions of the federal food safety net programs that continue to provide an indispensable lifeline for millions of children and families today.
Although these nutrition and other federal programs have helped reduce child poverty as we saw it in Mississippi 50 years ago, the shameful truth is that pangs of hunger and the pain of deprivation remain, not just in the Mississippi Delta but hidden in the shadows all across our nation. Despite the abundance of many in our very wealthy nation many parents face the harsh choice between paying the rent or buying a bag of groceries at the end of the month.
It is a national moral disgrace that children remain the poorest age group in the United States. It also is unnecessary, costly and the greatest threat I believe to our future national, economic and military security and soul. Nearly 1 in 5 children was poor in 2016 – more than 13.2 million children. More than 6 million of them lived in deep poverty at less than half the poverty level, below $9,553 a year or $796 a month for a family of three for all expenses, including housing, transportation, food, clothing, health and other basic necessities. It remains devastatingly clear that child poverty and racial inequality are inextricably linked with Black, Native American and Latino children far more likely to experience deep poverty than White children.
The crisis of deep child poverty persists in California which recently surpassed the United Kingdom as the 5th largest economy in the world. One in 5 California children was poor in 2016, and 1 in 12 children lived in deep poverty. In a high cost-of-living state where the monthly fair market rent for a 2-bedroom apartment is $1,608, many families lack the resources to cover rent and all their children’s basic needs.
Kevilyn Conley, a mother of two in Los Angeles and a participant in the Children’s Defense Fund-California’s Parent Engagement Institute, recounts the struggle to make ends meet when her first son was born eight years ago. Kevilyn and her husband were evicted from their home and the stresses of poverty led to the breakup of their marriage. Between 2010 and 2013 Kevilyn was homeless with her young child, sleeping on the floors and couches of relatives and in temporary shelters. “Poverty stagnates you,” she said. “It limits you from doing so many things. It forces you to make compromising decisions… I felt inadequate.”
Growing up in deep poverty impairs children’s ability to learn, develop and thrive. Children living every day with deprivation suffer toxic stress and delayed brain development that disrupts their ability to succeed in school and in life. Deep poverty damages the chance that a child will ever escape poverty and fuels an intergenerational cycle of poverty. Children born in deep poverty are three times as likely to be deeply poor at age 40 than children not born in deep poverty.
The United States of America, one of the richest countries in the world, can and must end child poverty now before another generation is impacted and the cycle is perpetuated. Most urgently, we must take steps immediately to protect children from the harms of deep child poverty as I hope California is about to do. State Senator Holly J. Mitchell, the Children’s Defense Fund’s California office, and more than 100 organizations across the state are championing an effort to end deep childhood poverty in California by increasing cash assistance available to all families through CalWORKs, California’s Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) program.
The CalWORKs program helps more than 800,000 low-income children stave off the worst destitution. Nearly 80 percent of CalWORKs recipients are families of color. They all struggle as CalWORKs monthly checks have lost nearly one-third of their purchasing power over the past decade. The current monthly maximum grant for a family of three is $714, which is just 41 percent of the federal poverty level and far short of what a family needs to make ends meet in California. In Los Angeles, for example, the combination of CalWORKs and food assistance barely covers half the median rent for a two-bedroom apartment, let alone child care, food, transportation, clothing, and everything else it takes to raise a family.
Hearing the cries of California’s poorest children and families, the California Senate voted last week to raise cash assistance levels to ensure no child receiving CalWORKs lives in deep poverty. A family of three would be eligible for $1,046 a month by 2021-22. Over the next two weeks legislative leaders and Governor Jerry Brown will negotiate a final state budget. For the sake of California children and as a moral pacesetter for our nation, that final budget must include an end to deep child poverty.
America has made important progress since Robert Kennedy’s 1967 trip through the Mississippi Delta, but much, much more is needed. The CalWORKs benefit increase is an important step in the right direction. Children deserve no less. And I hope our nation will follow what I hope and pray will be California’s positive example.